Take a venture into the sometimes enlightening, often depressing, world of online activism and journalism and it’s likely you’ll see clips from a news organisation called Russia Today. This organisation paints a grim picture of the United States – in the world of Russia Today, the USA is an oligarchical tyranny, where the establishment conspires to silence brave truth-telling crusaders.
You’ll see cynical and almost always conspiratorial reports of groups the “the Bilderberg group”, who seek, ostensibly, world domination. Take a gander through the various videos the organisation has published on Youtube and you’ll see a bizarre combination of Syrian regime apologism, anti-American hysteria, and embarrassing populist pandering, not to mention the 9/11 conspiracy theory peddlers who frequent its airwaves.
To an outside observer stumbling upon Russia Today, you would be forgiven for thinking that the organisation is a brave one, shining a glimmer of light into the murky depths of Western hypocrisy. Wikileaks editor Julian Assange even presents a show on the news station – kudos to them for giving him a platform.
But Russia Today has an agenda, an agenda easy to work out from five minutes of basic research online. The network is owned by RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency 100% owned by the Russian government. Initially founded during the Second World War as the Soviet Information Bureau, RIA Novosti has transformed into an international, glitzy news agency, and Russia Today is their baby. Lets be clear about this – this is a news station owned (and undoubtedly influenced) by a government that has murdered journalists and political opponents, acts in a framework of institutionalised corruption, rigged elections, and committed war crimes against the Chechen people. This government is no friend of freedom and democracy, yet you would think that it is – from the trendy, glitzy, and anti-establishment Russia Today.
Former KGB officer Konstantin Preobrazhensky described the channel as “a part of the Russian industry of misinformation and manipulation” with an objective to create a smokescreen around Russian interests. In my view, the objective of Russia Today is simple propaganda – to perpetuate the idea among young and naive westerners that the crimes of their governments are just as bad as those of the Russia government. ‘What hypocrites our governments are!’ They want us to say, ‘The United Kingdom and the United States are just as bad, if not worse, than other countries!’ The idea is that if you consider the United States to have as bad a government as Russia, believe that your government might have blown up the twin towers, or cynically conspires with shady central bankers to steal oil in the Middle East, you enter a bizarre zone of moral and political relativism.
The Russian government’s goal here is simple: to distract from the burgeoning opposition movement in the country and to prevent any kind of development of an international consensus that recognises Vladimir Putin for what he is: an evil autocrat who is stifling Russia from becoming the great country it should be. Russia Today, instead of being a brave truth-telling organisation, merely parrots the bizarre political philosophy of Russia’s ruling elites – petty conspiratorial nationalism, with a touch of anti-Semitism lite to wash it all down with.
Good journalism begins at home – you can measure the strength of any reporting organisation by how it covers domestic affairs in its own country. Russia Today’s employees contest that the organisation is “fair and balanced”, that it functions like the BBC – state owned but editorially independent. But a quick perusal of the organisation’s coverage of Russian politics quite quickly shows this to be a lie. Their coverage of Russia’s internal politics is pathetic, a “People’s Daily” style lap god for the regime. News on government policy is reserved for churning out press releases. I’ll give you an example. A news story on the website now is called: “Putin promotes social unity, political modernization”. All it does is simply quote from a speech Putin made, with no opposition response, no political context. Just a report on how the brilliant President is uniting the country. What journalism!
This is the irony of the newest addition to Russia Today’s scheduled programming, “The Julian Assange show”, wherein Wikileaks founder Julian Assange takes his sabre to western governments, no doubt enjoying his fat pay check from Vladimir Putin. The first episode of the show was, let’s be honest here, awful. Championed as Mr. Assange’s explosive debut, he interviewed with fawning adoration Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the far-right wing Lebanese Shia military group Hezbollah, who Mr Assange describes as simply a man who has “fought against the hegemony of the United States”. Awful stuff. Surely this brave campaigner for truth and freedom of expression is disgusted by the actions of the government that pays him? Does he really not see any contradiction there?
Russia Today is a cynical, opportunistic propaganda machine, churning out anti-Western lies and distortion to a ready and willing online audience. An audience willing to believe anything, to listen to any charlatan, as long as it confirms their prejudices. I’ve written about conspiracy theories in this magazine before, and Russia Today is rife with them. If you’re willing to believe the propaganda of a gutless and bootlicking organisation like Russia Today, you’ll believe anything.
To conclude, I issue a challenge to the employees of Russia Today, one of whom is Mr. Assange, to prove to me you are editorially independent from the Kremlin. Firstly, to Julian Assange, devote an episode of your programme to the corruption and the crimes of the Kremlin, you’ll find rich material there. Secondly, to the journalists of Russia Today, call for an end to the media blockade of Chechnya, the Russian governments refusal to allow any serious press into the region. Thirdly, call for an inquiry into the alleged war crimes of the Russian government in that region. Finally, investigate the death of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, widely believed to have been killed by the Russian secret services for her criticism of Putin. All these things, I believe, would be entirely in keeping with a level of editorial objectivity, and, if you are as independent from the Kremlin as you say you are, surely it should be no problem to do any of these things? If you do, maybe people with half a brain would begin to take you seriously.
Oliver Hotham is Not So Reviews’ deputy editor and Politics & Economics columnist
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